Working with Orphans in Guatemala

The saying that ‘less is more’ is one that is abundant amongst travellers all over the world. Whether travellers are short term or long term, the notion of ‘less is more’ is a frequent topic within the travelling community. But what would you say when ‘less’ becomes almost zero. Is it still ‘more’?

The notion ‘less is more’ commonly comes from feeling liberated when physically having less. Technology is a good example. When a technological device is broken it feels somewhat liberating not to have responsibility for it. The same concept applies when a backpacker takes only a few t-shirts and the bare essentials needed to survive. From a western perspective the concept is not linked to the item itself but to the sensation you associate with having that item.

What do we mean when we say less is more?

It is not only physical belongings that can help conceptualise the notion of ‘less is more’. Many travellers learn this concept when they witness other lifestyles that are less materially equipped than those in the west, but all the while who tend to appreciate what they do have. A great Fijian man was the first person to open my eyes to this concept. He expressed that ‘we are happy because we appreciate what we do have; family, friends and love. We don’t expect to get the next technological item because we know we can’t and so we appreciate what we have and we are happy with it’.

From then on whenever I encountered a lesser developed community I understood what the Fijian man meant. I also learned that people who have less often give more, and they give it with pride. The most hospitable people I have encountered have been from the poorest communities and in the most rural lands of Asia and Latin America, who don’t have enough food to feed themselves or enough space for their family to sleep. Nevertheless, there they stood offering me free food and accommodation for the night, and they did it with assertion, happiness and pride. From certain experiences I have learned that, yes, having less is sometimes feeling more, but my belief has been challenged since I have been living in the Guatemalan jungle.

Living and working in the Guatemalan jungle

For the past 6 weeks I have been living and volunteering in the Guatemala jungle at an orphan boarding school where the notion of ‘less is more’ certainly gets tested on a daily basis. The school has approximately 100 resident children, about 20 orphans and 80 who have families. The aim of the school is to provide mental, social, physical and educational care for children who either do not have families or whose families cannot afford to support them. Some children will go home every weekend, some will go home only several times a year and some will never return home. Additionally there are 100 children who come from the neighbouring village to attend the school and who return home each night.

The children live in houses, split into 4 groups; big girls, big boys (aged 8-15), small girls, small boys (aged 5-8). With one other volunteer I look after the biggest group; Niñas Grandes (big girls). The volunteers look after the children every moment of every day and night that they are not in school.  

Living conditions are harsh for the children. With few possessions and little space of their own the children share a room with their peers in their group. Each child shares a bunk bed and has half a closet to store their belongings. For the large majority only one shelf is used. Children receive plain rice and beans three times a day and have to live every day, including weekends, by a schedule. They have little freedom of choice and are frequently given much less attention than a young child needs to grow socially and mentally, due to the frequently low numbers of live-in volunteers.

Moving away from materialism

Here in the jungle the reality of living with few material items moves from the liberation which makes you feel ‘more’, towards one’s survival, which for many children includes responsibility for numerous younger siblings. Every day starts by waking up at 5 am to do chores, shower and line up for breakfast, before starting school at 7.30 am. After school, which finishes at 4pm, the children have one hour free time to play before they must shower again and line up for dinner at 6.30 pm. After dinner the children have some spare time to relax in their houses before lights out at 8pm.

The school only has electricity for several hours per day in the morning and the evening. The school water supply is also inconsistent, which means that frequently when the children have time to shower there is no water. However, despite everything, the children still finish every day with laughter and smiles.  

The volunteer’s life here in the jungle is also harsh. Living in a house made of wood and mosquito mesh, without electricity, but with tarantulas, scorpions and poisonous snakes, and with mould in almost every corner you can see, (as well as quite often on personal items) due to high humidity and not much sunlight over the house, takes a thick-skinned person to commit to life here.   

So, is less really more?

So why do we do it? The feeling you get when it’s you that is there in times of happiness and sadness, when it’s you who is there to help when help is needed, and when it’s you who is there in times of pride, achievement and support is a feeling that touches the heart of a volunteer. Most of all, the feeling that you get when you know that the children understand that you are there for them all day and night to care for them is a feeling that words cannot express.

So is less really more? When you come to a place like this you naturally think twice about people who have less. Here in the jungle, physically having less means your daily focus changes.  But, when less becomes almost zero, is it still more? What do you think?